The Early Adopter: Trendsetter or Sucker?

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By buying the newest, most hyped, most eagerly anticipated gadgets on the market, you get the thrill of being on the cutting edge. You get bragging rights in tech-obsessed circles. You’re a magnet for stares from strangers, who may be puzzled, jealous, or both. You also get to pay a premium compared to consumers willing to wait a little while for prices to inevitably drop, and you get to deal with a slew of hassles because of unanticipated problems, which are also inevitable.

Everyone knows that technology gets cheaper the longer an item is in production, but nowadays, the prices drop amazingly quickly.

Do you recall that in 2007 the 8GB iPhone originally sold for $599? Two months later, you could buy one for $399. And now? I just checked at Best Buy and 16GB iPhones go for $149, albeit with a two-year AT&T contract you may not love.

Flat-screen TVs, as the NY Times reported, have dropped to about one-quarter of the asking price three years ago, meaning the flat models now cost roughly what a comparable old picture-tube used to. Blu-ray players, which ran upwards of $1,000 a couple years ago, were on sale over the holidays for under $100.

You know you’re an early adopter if you’ve already bought the latest, most-talked about gadget, Google’s Nexus One smartphone. It costs $179 with a T-Mobile contract, or $529 sans contract. You know prices will come down in the near future. But so far, complaints other than price have gotten the most attention. Among them:

*Customers say they can’t get Internet signals. As a result, most of the phone’s cool features are occasionally useless.

*There is nowhere to call for help. If you’ve got a question, you must send Google an e-mail, though the company warns it may take up to 48 hours for someone to respond.

*Getting out of the contract will cost you big time. Combined, Google and T-Mobile will charge up to $550 in fees if you want out and decide to break your contract early.

In other early adopter news, those who bought an e-reader anytime in the recent past should be crossing their fingers hoping that they purchased the right one. BusinessWeek estimates that half of the e-readers now on the market won’t be around in a year. Also, some people are saying that 2010 could finally be the year of the electric car. From a Time story:

The good news is that early adopters may not need much encouragement. The McKinsey survey found that in New York, Paris and Shanghai many drivers report that they would be willing to buy electrics even in the face of range limitations and other inconveniences. They’re willing to reduce long-distance driving — or rent a gasoline-powered car when needed — and deal with the paucity of public charging areas. That’s important — it shows that electric-car ownership may be able to get off the ground before governments move to develop an extensive public charging infrastructure.

I’m skeptical. Yes, there will be early adopters. But how many? The greenest folks out there will continue to go car-less (like Adam Greenfield, who refused to get into any sort of automobile for an entire year), and the masses will only buy in once going electric makes sense in terms of convenience and price. From the looks of things, that time isn’t upon us, and won’t be for a while.

So is the early adopter a trendsetter or a sucker? If you’ve adopted early and often, you’ve probably been both at some point.

Regardless, here’s to the early adopter: You may be cool, but you are often unwise. You are out on the front line of consumerism, navigating the pitfalls of the marketplace and taking the first move to bring down prices for the rest of us. At least you know that the marketers love you.

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